Our waiter at Alegrias spoke to us in enthusiastic, rapid Spanish — a beautiful, singsong language, like its sisters, French and especially Italian. As he spoke, he waved his arms, rubbed his chin, pointed at the menu, nodded, smiled, and kept saying “Bueno!” and “No problem!” It was like being in Europe, trying to make ourselves understood through a porous language barrier and wondering if what we thought we ordered would be what would finally reach the table.
We ordered so many things that it would have been difficult to be sure what we were ordering even if our waiter had spoken perfect English. Alegrias is an authentic Spanish restaurant that features, in addition to its Spanish staff, a menu heavy on tapas, those little dishes so easy to weave together into a patchwork-quilt meal. The “house specialties” are three versions of paella, the saffron-rice dish, but it would be easy to graze through the tapas menu and be entirely satisfied without reaching the main courses.
Spain has its own roster of specialty foods, and if they're not as well known in this country as prosciutto and Parmesan, it's not because they're inferior but because Spain was a quasi-pariah state for most of Gen. Franco's long rule, which began at the close of the civil war in 1939. His death in 1975 led to the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy and the beginning of Spain's emergence as a modern European state, with food worthy of rediscovery.
One such foodstuff is jamón serrano, the air-cured ham that strongly resembles prosciutto and was considered a Spanish delicacy even in Roman times. The ham figures in several of the cold tapas dishes; we had it on tostadas ($4.50) — essentially grilled bread topped with the meat, along with tomatoes and cheese. The ham was buttery and just slightly salty, which made a nice contrast with the tomatoes' bright acidity. A second version of tostadas, with anchovy replacing the ham ($3.95), was overpowered by the fish's brininess.
Another Spanish specialty is the pimento. The restaurant gives the red pepper several treatments, one of which is as a spicy red sauce beside perfectly diced and fried potatoes ($3). The potatoes were crisp on the outside, meltingly soft within, and the slightly chunky red sauce imparted equal jolts of heat, salt, vinegar, and a distinctive sunny flavor.
The pimento appeared again, roasted and folded into a mayonnaise that accompanied a plate of fried calamari ($4.75). The calamari were crunchy and rich in the best tradition of deep-fried foods; the mayo added zing but was also creamy — maybe too much so. A citrus vinaigrette that incorporated the pimentos would have been just as tasty, and less heavy.
Also deep-fried were the croquetas del d’a ($3.50). These were little blobs of mashed potato folded around the day's ingre-dients (for us, ham and chicken), then dunked in hot oil, which turned them a deep gold. Besides the meats, they also contained a mild white cheese that melted into a sensuous goo.
Mushrooms sauteed in garlic and wine ($3.95) filled the table with a garlicky perfume. The mushrooms themselves looked like the plain white-button variety, but if they were common it didn't matter, because the dish was about garlic. The escalivada ($4.50), a cold, ratatouillelike dish of grilled eggplant, peppers, and onions in olive oil, was a classic of Catalonia.
We were so busy passing the tapas to and fro that we forgot to order the main courses, which took some time to arrive. We passed the time nibbling at the good French bread, which we dipped in olive oil from the bottle on the table. The waiter came by repeatedly to make sure we liked everything; he smiled and gestured, and in reply so did we. It was as if he were conducting us in some sort of concert.
The paella a la Valenciana ($13.50) was served in a generous earthenware casserole that easily held enough for two people. The dish consisted of (besides the perfectly cooked rice, yellow and moist) chicken, scallops, mussels, and shrimp, along with chunks of pimento and a heavy sprinkling of peas. But no sausage. On the street after dinner we agreed that the paella, while good, lacked something, and for me that was sausage, which is part of so many standard recipes. Sausage adds a bit of salt and meatiness, as well as a mix of spices. There is no substitute for some form of it. Leaving it out is like trying to play a symphony without the bass violin.
The chicken in almond and saffron sauce ($11.50) and the rabbit casserole with Spanish onions and olives ($12.50) were both served with the beautiful potatoes and their pimento sauce. I'd had rabbit, simply grilled, not long ago at another restaurant and had been struck by its subtle distinctiveness in both flavor and texture. Here I could not tell the rabbit from the poultry. Both were tasty and tender, but something got lost in the preparation. I like a strong hand in seasoning, and chicken is ordinary and bland enough to withstand a bit of overshadowing by a more assertive flavor. But rabbit is still something of a delicacy, at least to the American palate, and I would have been happier if the two dishes had not seemed quite so indistinguishable.
At the end of such a long and complicated meal, even our American craving (or is that addiction?) for a grand finale of sweets was muted. We agreed to split a single dessert four ways. It was the postre Alegrias ($4.50), a modest, oblong crock filled with what looked like cr�me caramel. Chunks of apple, poached in sherry wine, swam in Catalan cream, which had the consistency of slightly runny custard. It was like eating a bowl of half-melted ice cream.
Alegrias is a family-run place, and the gregarious intimacy of the staff more than makes up for occasional lapses of service and the fairly plain decor. The wide-ranging tapas menu is strong enough to mask the incompleteness of the paellas. But all the same, those house specialties should be brought up to speed.
Alegrias, 2018 Lombard, S.F., 929-8888. Wed-Sun 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; daily 5:30-11 p.m.